Singapore’s total coronavirus cases have surged in recent weeks to one of the highest in Asia — but the country is not even halfway through its outbreak, according to Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong.
“This is still the first half of the marathon,” the minister told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia.”
Wong, who co-heads Singapore’s task force to fight the virus, said the country would continue to uncover high numbers of new cases for some time due to “extensive testing” being carried out in dormitories that house migrant workers.
That group of workers, mostly men from other Asian countries, has accounted for around 87.6% of Singapore’s total 19,410 confirmed cases as of Tuesday, according to the health ministry. Cases found in those dormitories were the reason behind the surge in the number of infections in Singapore over the past month.
“We’re testing not only the workers who are reporting sick — for which the numbers are not very large — but we’re doing very extensive testing on workers in the dormitories who are well, who are asymptomatic,” said Wong, who’s also Singapore’s second minister for finance.
“And so, we are still picking up quite a high number of cases in the dormitories, I think that will remain for some time. It’s a very serious outbreak but we’re making progress in bringing the outbreak in the dormitories under control,” he added.
The Southeast Asian country has one of the highest testing rates in the world. As of April 27, it conducted more than 140,000 tests for the coronavirus, or around 2,500 tests per 100,000 people, according to a prepared speech that Minister for Health Gan Kim Yong delivered in parliament on Tuesday.
Gan also said that the country has increased its testing capacity from 2,900 tests a day in early April to 8,000 per day currently — and is aiming to hit 40,000 tests a day.
In addition to testing, the Singapore government has put in place a partial lockdown that it called a “circuit breaker” to curb the outbreak. Those measures, which included temporary school closures and the shutting down of nonessential workplaces, are expected to be gradually lifted starting next month.
‘Safeguards were not sufficient’
Before the surge in cases tied to migrant worker dormitories, the way that the Singapore government handled the coronavirus outbreak — which includes active testing and screening for potential infections — was hailed by many experts as an example for other countries to follow.
As the virus spreads widely in those packed dormitories, some observers questioned why the government didn’t identify those living quarters as a potential hotbed for the coronavirus earlier. That’s especially so when activists have for years raised the issue of poor living conditions in the overcrowded dormitories, with one veteran Singaporean diplomat describing them as a “time bomb waiting to explode.”
However, Wong said that the living standards in migrant worker dormitories have “steadily” improved over the years, with recreational facilities within the compounds and convenient access to amenities.
“The issue is really that these dormitories are designed for communal living, where the workers eat together, they live together and they cook together,” the minister said.
“And despite the best effort at putting in place precautions and safeguards, reminding the dormitories’ operators that these … nonessential communal activities have to be ceased at the start of the outbreak, I think the lesson we’ve learned from this experience is that with this pandemic — an unprecedented pandemic — the safeguards were not sufficient and the design of dormitories have to change,” he added.